“Doctor Who,” “Listen” And Coping With Trauma

I get behind on “Doctor Who” — being cable-less will do that to you — but this week’s episode was being widely touted as one of the best in years, so of course I had to make it a priority to watch. When “Doctor Who” is good, it’s really, really good; it is at heart a celebration of humanity, and as much as The Doctor’s companions can be cast as his accessories, he’s often also their foil, the vehicle by which they have the opportunity to express their humanness.

I’m not too cool to admit that I’ve taken life lessons from “Doctor Who” — I abide by John Green’s definition of “nerdiness” as “unironic enthusiasm about the miracle of human consciousness.” (I’m also not so pretentious that I consider my opinion on it invalid despite the fact that, no, I haven’t watched the original series, so there.) I named my blog for a quote from “The Power of Three.” I have “Allons-y!” tattooed on my leg. I think one of the show’s strengths is its zeal for adventure and discovery, not just in terms of travel to distant places, but in terms of introspection and self-discovery: see “The God Complex,” or really any regeneration. The show’s protagonist has to find out over and over who he really is.

In the last few years, Steven Moffat has been approaching The Doctor increasingly as a veteran of war who has experienced horrific trauma: After all (this is not a spoiler), in order to stop a war that was going to eat up the entire universe, he had to kill his entire race, including his family. The Ninth Doctor was brooding, the Tenth Doctor was kind of avoidant, Eleven had rage and doubt and guilt and self-hatred simmering right underneath all his goofiness; and we’re coming, now, to the Twelfth Doctor, who seems most of all of them to be suffering from realistic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: He’s confused, he self-isolates, he’s frightened.

This week’s episode, “Listen,” was the most concentrated expression of that experience. The Doctor becomes obsessed with the idea that there’s a sort of creature that has evolved to hide perfectly — if such a creature existed, how would we know? His evidence is the common nightmare of a hand shooting out from under the bed to grab your ankle, the monster under the bed; along with unexplained sounds in the night or the unexplained breath that you might feel on the back of your neck.

The Doctor’s theory about this ghost-race comes about after long stretches of traveling alone, as Mac Rogers points out at Slate — but it’s not just that he’s stir-crazy, I guarantee you that. I know, because I know what it’s like to intentionally never leave home, to prefer to be alone most of the time, to depend on an extremely limited number of people for company because they’re the only people you trust to accept you at your most vulnerable; I know what it’s like to read danger into situations where there isn’t danger (all the time, constantly, day and night), I know what it’s like to put on a strong face and try to stuff down all the fear you’re feeling so no one sees you as a target. I know what it’s like to be afraid of the dark. I know because of my own PTSD diagnosis.

The episode’s suggestion for coping with this traumatic fear is not to fight it, but to embrace it:

“I know you’re afraid, but being afraid is all right. Because didn’t anyone ever tell you? Fear is a superpower. Fear can make you faster, and cleverer, and stronger… If you’re very wise, and very strong, fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly. Fear can make you kind.”

The fear we feel after trauma can feel like a useless fear, a fear of phantoms and figments of our imagination. It’s a fear that’s invasive — it happens without any apparent cause, out of the blue, and for that reason it’s tempting to try to project that fear elsewhere. The Doctor projects it onto this theorized race of perfect hiders, telling Rupert and Clara just not to look at it when it seems to be present with them, that he doesn’t know what a creature whose base motivation is to hide would do to a person were it to be seen; I project it onto strangers in public, because I cannot know if they want to hurt me. But that fear doesn’t occur because of theoretical beasts or because of strangers, it occurs because of our own experiences, because of our lives, the things we’ve been through; it’s part of us.

If those of us who have experienced trauma can accept that fear as part of us instead of running away from it — which is what triggers a panic attack at the least and episodic blackouts at the worst, the urge to flee and to repress — it’s possible that we can use it to be more sympathetic to other people. It’s possible that understanding our own pain, and our traumas, can make us more compassionate, more generous, and more human. Letting go of the projections we make is the first and biggest obstacle to that end. I know I’m still trying to clamber over it, myself.

All that from a show about aliens: But, indeed, one of the most beautifully-constructed episodes in years.

[Flare and Fade]